By In Agency and Responsibility, NDPR Discussion Forum Comments (5)

NDPR Forum: Suzy Killmister’s Taking the Measure of Autonomy, reviewed by Ben Mitchell-Yellin

Welcome to our next NDPR Forum, on Suzy Killmister’s book Taking the Measure of Autonomy: A Four-Dimensional Theory of Self-Governance. It was recently reviewed in NDPR by Ben Mitchell-Yellin. Below the fold are a few blurbs about the book and passages from the review. Please feel free to join in on the discussion!

From the book jacket: “This book takes a radically different approach to the concept of autonomy. Killmister defends a theory of autonomy that is four-dimensional and constituted by what she calls ‘self-definition,’ ‘self-realisation,’ ‘self-unification,’ and ‘self-constitution.’ While sufficiently complex to inform a full range of social applications, this four-dimensional theory is nonetheless unified through the simple idea that autonomy can be understood in terms of self-governance. The ‘self’ of self-governance occupies two distinct roles: the role of ‘personal identity’ and the role of ‘practical agency.’ In each of these roles, the self is responsible for both taking on, and then honouring, a wide range of commitments. One of the key benefits of this theory is that it provides a much richer measure not just of how autonomous an agent is, but also the shape—or degree—of her autonomy. Taking the Measure of Autonomy will be of keen interest to professional philosophers and students across social philosophy, political philosophy, ethics, and action theory who are working on autonomy.”

From Mitchell-Yellin’s review: “This ambitious book cuts against the grain. Killmister lays out a framework for thinking about autonomy that eschews the received view in many quarters. Difficulty reconciling the various uses to which “autonomy” is put has led to calls for a moratorium on our use of the term. Killmister demurs. Good for her. Her view centers on the idea that there are several dimensions to autonomy, and while they are related, one may fall short in one but not the others. The result is a nuanced theory of autonomy that illuminates how the concept applies in a range of domains and to a range of agents.

I am intrigued by the idea that our capacity to be autonomous in some way grounds a commitment to being autonomous. Perhaps it’s a rational or moral commitment, as opposed to an agential one. I don’t know. It’s difficult to make out the argument for this claim. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Indeed, those of us who agree with Killmister that we shouldn’t abandon talk of autonomy should want something to say here. Many philosophers seem persuaded that talk of autonomy can be helpfully replaced by talk of the various other concepts that autonomy is supposed to be bound up with. Forget autonomy and focus, instead, on moral responsibility, respect, etc. on their own terms. It would help to counter this line of thought if we had something to say about our commitment to the importance of autonomy itself.

Killmister’s book helpfully lays out a framework for thinking about autonomy, and one of its real virtues is that it helps us to see the many ways that autonomy is bound up with other things we care about, both in the agential and political spheres. But that is not enough to stave off the prevailing headwinds. There is a sense in which the case of the agent who gave up her status as autonomous is a stand-in for the philosopher who gave up her interest in the concept of autonomy. Puzzling out what to say about the former’s mistake seems a nice way of puzzling out what to say about the latter’s.”

5 Responses to NDPR Forum: Suzy Killmister’s Taking the Measure of Autonomy, reviewed by Ben Mitchell-Yellin

  1. Suzy Killmister says:

    Thanks very much to Dave Shoemaker for showcasing my book, and to Ben Mitchell-Yellin for his NDPR review. It’s a rare treat to have someone engage with your work as closely and carefully as Ben did with my book, and it’s very much appreciated!

    I’ll kick things off by picking up on what I take to be Ben’s central concern with my book: at no point do I explain why autonomy is supposed to *matter*. As he astutely notes, “Interrogating the notion that autonomy matters can help to shed light on how we should think about the concept.” In particular, Ben seems concerned about what we could say to the agent who doesn’t see the value of being autonomous – someone who wants to just ‘go with the flow’ rather than engaging in the difficult business of valuing things, or making plans, or even forming intentions. In other words, what do we say to the person with the capacity for autonomy, who declines to ever exercise that capacity?

    Ben seems tempted by the idea that the capacity for autonomy might generate some kind of rational or moral commitment to being autonomous. I have to confess that I have never been particularly tempted by such an idea. I have, though, been quite tempted by the thought that autonomy is objectively valuable for agents, even if they don’t recognise it as such. Indeed, when I started writing the book I assumed that I would incorporate a chapter specifically defending the universal value of autonomy. I backed off doing so largely out of concern about the hubris of making such a grandiose claim. I’ve spent a fair bit of time over the years in close conversation with anthropologists and sociologists, who’ve always seemed somewhat bemused (if not horrified) by how quick philosophers are to generalise from our own very limited perspectives, especially when we’re talking about what it means to be human. I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that the kind of self presupposed by my theory of autonomy is (at least potentially) historically and culturally particular.

    That said, I don’t think it follows that I need to stay silent on the question of why autonomy might matter, and nor do I think I *was* entirely silent on that question in my book (though my thoughts on the matter function more as a backing track to the main argument, rather than being foregrounded at any particular point).

    So here’s what I *am* willing to say explicitly about the value of autonomy: I think autonomy is absolutely central to a wide range of practices that are deeply embedded in post-industrial societies. (I focus on three such practices in the book – moral responsibility, consent, and paternalism – but the list could certainly go on.) If we want to understand those practices – indeed, if we want to understand the society we live in – we’re going to need to understand autonomy. This gives us something to say to the philosophical skeptic, who doesn’t see the point of studying the concept. Moreover, if someone chose not to develop their capacity for autonomy then she would be shutting herself out of these practices: she would be unable to participate in practices of consent; she would be unable to participate in practices of holding one another responsible; and she would leave herself liable to paternalistic interference. That’s quite a lot to walk away from, and so gives us something to say to the skeptic who’s tempted to retreat from the work of becoming and remaining autonomous.

    I assume this isn’t the kind of answer Ben’s after, though, because if the skeptic insists that she doesn’t care about the network of practices in which autonomy is embedded either, we’re left with nothing to say to her. I’m actually OK with that: I think it’s enough to tease out the implications of abandoning autonomy. That is one of the things I tried to do in my book.

  2. Ben M-Y says:

    Hi Suzy,

    Thanks for your engaging book! And thanks also for continuing to discuss it here. I profited from working through your book and writing the review. I’m glad for the opportunity to discuss these issues with you some more here.

    What you say in your comment here gels nicely with what I gleaned form your book. And, for the record, I didn’t mean to suggest that you don’t say *anything* about the value of autonomy in your book, but rather that answers to some skeptical challenges seem to me to require more than, as you put it here, backing to the argument. I had two skeptics in particular in mind. The first is the skeptical agent, who doesn’t see the value of being autonomous herself; the other is the skeptical philosopher, who doesn’t see a need to investigate the concept of autonomy. What I suggested in the review is that working out a reply to the first skeptic may help to figure out a reply to the second.

    What you say here suggests that you view the value of autonomy as instrumental. It is a means to, a precondition of, engaging in practices that are valuable in themselves–such as moral responsibility, consent, paternalism. My concern is that this response may not get us very far with the two skeptics. In particular, I worry that it won’t get us far with the philosophical skeptic.

    Suppose, in response to the skeptical agent, we say something like: you should care about being autonomous because it is required for engaging in these other valuable practices. The philosophical skeptic may hear: what matters is investigating what goes into being morally responsible, or etc. And since this skeptic is often motivated by something like the thought that “autonomy” names too many and disparate things to be a united and useful concept, she may take the claim about its merely instrumental value as a signal that there’s no such a great payoff to trying to sort out the apparent conceptual mess. In other words, if autonomy doesn’t matter in itself, why put in all of the work sorting out a unified account of autonomy that can illuminate its connections to these various valuable practices? Instead, why not just investigate these practices and their preconditions without attempting to provide an account that unifies them? (I take it you have tried to provide a unified account, and I find much of what you say plausible. But I’m imagining someone with doubts about various parts of your account, and I can see her wondering why she should be concerned about the merits of a unified account in the first place.)

    This dialectical shrug, as it were, seems to me to be most seriously challenged if we can spell out what is valuable about autonomy in itself. And so I think that this is the way to go for those of us who want to motivate concern for autonomy itself, as opposed to piecemeal concern for the preconditions on various other worthwhile practices. But you seem to disagree. I would love to hear more about why. Perhaps I’m making things too complicated for myself.

  3. Suzy Killmister says:

    Hi Ben,
    I don’t think you’re making things too complicated for yourself, but I do think you’re potentially making things more difficult for yourself. I take it your strategy is to defeat the philosophical skeptic by first defeating the skeptical agent: by showing why autonomy is intrinsically valuable, we can show why the philosopher ought to care about it as a concept.

    I think defeating the skeptical agent is *much* more difficult than defeating the philosophical skeptic, so hitching the latter to the former feels like a tactical error. The philosophical skeptic already (presumably) cares about a whole lot of concepts/practices which appeal to autonomy, whether explicitly or implicitly, in some form or other. I’m optimistic we can show her that to fully understand the concepts/practices she already cares about, she ought to start to care about autonomy.

    Now of course, the philosophical skeptic might well respond that all she *really* cares about is consent, or paternalism, or whatever, and so she sees no need for a unified account. All that’s needed, she might say, is to get clearer on what consent is, and a sufficient conception of autonomy will fall out of that. At this point I think the best strategy is to point to the possibility of enriching our understanding of one practice by considering it in light of another. So we learn something about consent from considering it in light of the wrong of paternalism; and we learn something about why paternalism is wrong by considering it in light of practices of moral responsibility. But we can only do this if we’re not talking past each other; and not talking past each other means getting clear on how autonomy functions slightly differently within each of these domains, as well as how the central notion of autonomy is shared between them.

    The challenge posed by the skeptical agent runs much deeper. To counter it, I think, would involve developing a robust objective list account of well-being. I’m nervous about such accounts, primarily for reasons of cultural pluralism that I gestured at in my previous post; but even setting that aside, it was a much bigger challenge than I felt I could responsibly undertake within the confines of the book.

    I’d also like to pick up on something else you raised in your review, about manipulation cases. You point out that if we build a diachronic condition into the relevant kind of attitude (if something only qualifies as a value, say, if we exhibit certain dispositions over time) then we get a quasi-historical condition that can block a lot of manipulation cases. I wholeheartedly agree. This probably didn’t come through sufficiently clearly in the book, but I was very much thinking of the attitudes that constitute self-definition in this diachronic way (it’s one of the reasons I think radical self-transformation renders us at least temporarily less autonomous). Why I nonetheless construe my theory as ‘biting the bullet’ on manipulation cases is that I don’t think this is going to go far enough to satisfy those who are motivated by such cases to incorporate some kind of historical or substantive condition on autonomy. They’re going to want something that can definitively rule out cases like Al Mele’s Beth from counting as autonomous. On my account (and, I suspect, on the kind of quasi-historical account you sketch in your review) Beth *can* count as autonomous, if the instilled attitudes prove stable over time. Likewise, and what caused me many more sleepless nights than the Beth case, appeal to diachronically stable attitudes won’t do much to block worries about adaptive preferences. That’s the bullet I found it especially hard to bite, but didn’t find a satisfactory way to avoid it.

  4. Ben M-Y says:


    These are interesting further thoughts. Thanks! I want to say one more brief thing about the value of autonomy and then something also about manipulation cases.

    Part of the reason I’m inclined to think that the answer to the philosophical skeptic will follow on the tails of an answer to the skeptical agent is that I’m inclined to think the best account of the value of autonomy will appeal (a) to something like the claim that, given our reflexive self-consciousness, agents like us are committed to the value of being autonomous and (b) values, in general, are constructed. I realize that both of these claims are controversial, and so my view may not only be a bit idiosyncratic but also hard to convince others of. Alas, maybe I should be talked out of it.

    As for the manipulation cases, I hadn’t appreciated that your view built a diachronic condition into the nature of relevant attitudes. For what it’s worth, I think that’s a good move. And I guess I don’t see how it doesn’t block the worry from cases like Mele’s Ann and Beth one. I thought, although please correct me if I’m wrong, that these cases involved the claim that the post-intervention manipulated agent now has the relevant psychological elements to count as free/responsible/autonomous on relevant views. From what you say in the above comment, it seems as if you interpret these cases as allowing that these attitudes may be attributable to the agent only after some time has passed and the diachronic condition has been met. Aside from not having read the cases in this way, I also don’t find this implausible. If the diachronic condition is met, then I am inclined to think we should attribute the attitudes to these agents, even if implanted earlier. Thus, I don’t really see that there’s a bullet to bite here. Once again, perhaps I should be talked out my position, though. And I’d be interested to hear more about why this is a cost my view–or a bullet, to continue with the metaphor.

    You mention cases of adaptive preferences. These are very interesting. Can you say more about how you understand such cases and what, in particular, the bullet is that you see yourself biting here?

  5. Suzy Killmister says:

    Hi Ben,
    I’m going to focus here on the manipulation cases, since I think our different positions on the value of autonomy largely come down to where each of thinks we ought to put our philosophical energy, rather than any substantive disagreement.

    So I certainly maintain that in cases like Beth’s, the agent counts as free/responsible/autonomous. I take it Mele’s main goal with this case, though, was to pump the intuition that Beth *isn’t* autonomous, which is why he introduces his historical condition. Here’s what he says in summing up the case:
    “The salient difference between Ann and Beth is that Ann’s practically unsheddable values were acquired under her own steam, whereas Beth’s were imposed upon her. Ann autonomously developed her values (we are entitled to suppose); Beth plainly did not. Except possibly for theorists in the firm grip of internalism about psychological autonomy, it is difficult to see this difference as irrelevant to the autonomous possession of these values.” And he goes on: “Behind the facade of self-government, external governors lurk—covert manipulators who engineered practically unsheddable values central to the psychological foundation on which Beth bases many of her identifications, evaluative judgments, decisions, and actions.”

    Now as far as I can recall, Mele doesn’t really address the longer term question about Beth, i.e. whether after a sufficient period of time, once her newly implanted values have taken root and are integrated with her other diachronic attitudes, she ought to count as autonomous. But everything else he says inclines me to think he would still deny Beth is autonomous (at least with respect to the implanted values).

    I’m with you, though: I think we *should* classify Beth as autonomous, and I don’t actually think this is a particularly worrisome bullet to bite. I felt obligated to flag it as an implication of my theory, though, because so many other people seem deeply troubled by examples like the Beth case.

    As I noted in my last comment, I’m much more troubled by adaptive preferences. (Very roughly speaking, I understand adaptive preferences to be attitudes agents take on in response to limited options and/or oppressive social norms, where those attitudes seem to validate the very limitations or oppressive norms that gave rise to them.) The reason why these trouble me more than cases like Beth’s is because of their real-world relevance. We don’t (I hope!) realistically have to worry about dealing with cases like Beth in our day to day lives, so they function just as an idealised test-case: they help us delve into the texture and theoretical commitments of an account, but what we say about such cases isn’t going to implicate us in furthering actual oppression. We don’t have that luxury when we’re dealing with adaptive preferences: what we say here has implications for how vast numbers of people (probably including myself) ought to be treated, the kind of respect we’re owed, whether we can provide valid consent, and so on. My worry is that just about anything we say about the autonomy of adaptive preferences is likely to have oppressive implications. To cast such attitudes as non-autonomous risks perpetuating existing stereotypes about women, especially in the developing world, and would seem to justify shutting them out of political discourse. On the other hand, to accept such attitudes as autonomous risks underplaying the harm caused by oppressive circumstances, which includes harm to agency.

    The reason I went the way I did in my book (for those who haven’t read it: I argue that adaptive preferences are likely to reduce autonomy, but they are at least conceptually compatible with full autonomy) is in large part because the tweaks I would have needed to make to the theory to rule out adaptive preferences had too high costs in other domains, especially the three applications I looked at. So this was one of the elements of the book where the final product was a result of reflective equilibrium: I tried plugging in more substantive conditions for autonomy, but these kept generating judgments about cases that I couldn’t accept!

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